Tag Archives: animal rights

A Philosopher’s Dream

A moral philosopher had the following dream:

First Darwin appeared, and the philosopher said to him, “Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch for your support of medical research using animals?”

To the philosopher’s surprise, Darwin gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes,  ending with a warning to the philosopher that “I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind. “ But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Darwin couldn’t answer. Confused, Darwin scratched his head and disappeared.

Then Albert Sabin appeared.  He gave another detailed account of the importance of the work to the development of the Polio vaccine and concluded that “without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”  The same thing happened again, and the philosophers’ objection to Sabin was the same as his objection to Darwin. Sabin also couldn’t answer it at all, scratched his head and disappeared.

head-scratching

Then all the famous medical heroes of the past century paraded one-by-one to defend the work, and our philosopher refuted every single one with the same, singular objection.

After the last scientist vanished, our philosopher said to himself, “I know I’m asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I’ve found a universal refutation for all justifications of animal  research! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!”

With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written.

It was,

“That’s what you say, but I am deeply skeptical.”

 

Jeffrey Kahn’s Odd Views on Animal Research

Professor Jeffrey Kahn visited UW Madison to discuss the use of monkeys in medical research.

He is the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy and the Deputy Director for Policy and Administration at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Professor Kahn has participated in numerous federal panels and chaired the influential Institute of Medicine (IoM) committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which recommended that the NIH phase out most biomedical research on chimpanzees.

Because he is respected and listened to by those in charge of making policy decisions on matters of important medical research and public health issues, his talk at UW Madison drew much attention.

During his comments Prof. Kahn raised several objections about how animal research is regulated in the United States that deserve closer scrutiny.

Unfair application of the principles of utilitarian philosophy

Professor Kahn objected to justifying research based on utilitarianism on the grounds that it is unfair to consistently harm one group (non-human animals) for the benefit of another (humans).

However, the notion that pure utilitarianism forms the basis for an ethical defense of biomedical research is incorrect.

For example, a pure utilitarian view would also call for doing invasive experiments in mentally disabled human beings whose cognitive capabilities are comparable to those of animals used in research, or demand we forcefully harvest the organs of a potential human donor to save the lives of several others.

Of course, we don’t do any of these things. So it was perplexing to hear him state that utilitarianism is “how the system is set up.” 

No, it is definitely not.

Medical research with human and non-human animals is not based on a pure, utilitarian view.  Instead, it is partly based on a graded moral status perspective that posits we owe moral consideration to all living beings, but not to the same degree that we owe consideration to the lives of fellow humans. It is also partly based in our mutual recognition of equal, basic rights for all members of the human family.

These ethical considerations are embedded in federal regulations and NIH guidelines that call for minimizing the number of animal subjects used in any one study, the amount of suffering involved, and require the use the “lowest” species that can be expected to yield meaningful scientific answers.  It is also reflected in specific federal programs aimed at developing alternatives to animal use and, of course, in protections for human subjects.

It is true that NIH has never made explicit the ethical and philosophical principles underlying its research.  Nevertheless, the ethical principles etched in these regulations should be clear to anyone who spend the time to become familiar with them.

A misguided notion of scientific necessity

Professor Kahn views the “scientific necessity” of the work as inextricably linked to the ethics. His views are aligned with the conclusions of the panel that he chaired on chimpanzee research.  Within this framework a project would be morally justified only if all the following three conditions were met:

  1. No suitable alternative is available
  2. The work cannot be performed ethically on human subjects
  3. The work is required in order to accelerate the prevention, control and treatment of life-threatening or debilitating diseases

A large class of studies readily meet the first two requirements. When we seek information about the cellular and molecular mechanisms in a living organism, the technologies available to us at the present are invasive, and the work cannot be performed ethically in human subjects. If we could observe and manipulate molecular pathways and cells in living humans without jeopardizing their well being, then the work would be done in humans. But we don’t yet have such tools. No computer simulation, no in-vitro system, no MRI, no organs-on-a-chip currently available, provide an adequate alternative to animal studies.

The crux of the matter then boils down to the third condition, and therein lies the rub. When you are talking about the process of scientific discovery, this third condition is meaningless when applied to individual scientific projects. Science, as Professor Kahn himself points out, is not necessarily a predictable linear path from point A to point B, because it involves the exploration of the unknown. Science cannot promise that any one experiment can lead to a cure, nor can researchers know ahead of time which specific experiment or line of research will lead to a breakthrough. In Professor Kahn’s own words, “we call it research because we don’t know what the answer is.”  Why does he not realize that demanding a specific outcome in advance is out of the question?  One can only evaluate outcomes in retrospect, as Peter Singer has done offering in his approval for monkey studies in Parkinson’s research. Unfortunately, scientists on NIH study sections do not have the luxury of an oracle that can guide their decisions.

Instead, researchers understand that without animal studies we will not be able to develop new therapies and cures. Our expert scientific opinion is that were we to suspend animal research, most fields of biomedical research would come to a full stop. Meanwhile, patients and their families would pay the price of more human suffering.

Thus, the ethical question should be reframed as not whether one individual study is required but, in the case at the heart of this debate, whether the use of animal models is required to understand the molecular pathways underlying mental disorders so that we can  develop new treatments and cures for them.  Or more generally, if animals are required at all to advance medical knowledge and human health.  The scientific consensus in this matter, as indicated by a recent Nature magazine poll,  is overwhelming:

 

Bonus points should go to UW Professor Eric Sandgren who was nevertheless able to use Professor Kahn’s framework to explain, point by point, why he feels the studies under discussion can be justified. You may agree or disagree with his justification, but you cannot say he did not offer one. In contrast, Professor Kahn simply stated that he was “deeply skeptical” of the necessity of the work, despite acknowledging a lack of familiarity with the details of the study, nor bothering to explain the rationale for this view.

Given that the research at the center of this debate is aimed directly at anxiety disorders, a specific neurological condition that affects millions of humans, one might safely assume that Professor Kahn would express even graver doubts about basic research in animal subjects. He would have likely have rejected outright the research on olfactory cells that eventually allowed paralyzed people (and dogs) to walk again, among numerous advances in knowledge that have led to medical breakthroughs.

Professor Kahn ought to be reminded that the mission of the NIH is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” and try to understand better the inherent uncertainty and necessity of scientific research.

Do IACUCs and NIH study sections fail to evaluate scientific necessity?

Given his misguided view of necessity, it should not be surprising Professor Kahn believes that neither IACUCs nor NIH study sections are able to assess the scientific need for specific studies. He harshly criticized such committees for taking the claims of any one proposal at “face value.

That is a very strong statement… and a decidedly incorrect one, too.

First, the overall scientific direction of medical research in the country is established by our medical and scientific leadership. In the neurosciences, scientists are guided in their research by NIH’s Neuroscience Blueprint. Among the important scientific directions relevant to this particular discussion—ones that Professor Kahn should have known about—were the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network (to advance the development of new drugs for nervous system disorders) and the Blueprint Non-Human Primate Brain Atlas (to provide comprehensive data on gene expression in the rhesus macaque brain , from birth to four years old). Such work is expected to aid research on human brain development and its disorders.

Second, NIH study sections diligently assess proposals with an eye to which studies stand a better chance of advancing our knowledge of function and disease and therefore may have the greatest potential to lead to new cures or fundamentally advancing a field of study. In making their assessments, scientists who participate in study sections use their expertise to assess which research directions and pilot data look most promising. There is never a guarantee that any one study will produce a breakthrough. If there is any one premise it is that animal research has led to numerous advancements in knowledge and medicine that has benefited human and non-human animals alike. This is not taken at face value, rather, it is an indisputable fact of medical history.

Third, once the scientific merit of a proposal has been established, IACUCs provide an additional layer of local scrutiny and compliance oversight. It is perfectly reasonable for IACUCs to ensure the work at the institution maximizes the welfare of the animal subjects in each study, and NIH requires such an assurance for institutions that receive federal funding. (For the small minority of projects that have not yet received NIH review, the IACUCs seek local expertise to evaluate the scientific merit of the study.)

Is funding “unnecessary” research a waste of resources?

Another miscalculation derived from Professor Kahn’s flawed view of “necessity” is the claim that if research is “unnecessary” according to his definition, then it is also unethical, especially considering the limited funding resources we have available at the moment.

It is perfectly legitimate for a society to assess how it distributes its resources, but in doing so the entire budget ought to be considered.

One may ask, for example, how Professor Kahn feels about resources spent on drones for the military, the Hubble telescope, unmanned trips to Mars, funding for theoretical physics, game theory, or the Arts.

Or, more to the point, one could ask for a more detailed justification of why society should spend its resources on philosophers and bioethicists?

Should society prioritize the support of bioethics over the development of a vaccine for Ebola or a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

Which is one more crucial to our social welfare and which is more “unnecessary”?

Who will direct medical research?

Scientists must participate more in public life because social policies need to be decided on the basis of rational grounds and facts. These include important issues ranging from climate change, to the goals of the space program, to the protection of endangered species, to the use of embryonic stem cells or animals in biomedical research.

When scientifically inaccurate statements emanate from someone who has demonstrable influence on public policy decisions, scientists have a duty to speak up and correct the mistakes.

Animal research poses a legitimate moral dilemma. Decisions to pursue different lines of research that are perceived as controversial — be it research involving animals subjects or embryonic stem cells — cannot be assessed fairly without the active participation of scientists, physicians, patients and their families, because all are stakeholders in the work.

Unless these stakeholders get involved in such debates, we may find that their interests are not taken into account when the future direction of medical research is determined.

Dario Ringach

 

Why Animal Research-based Criticisms of the Ice Bucket Challenge are Misguided

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Aamodt, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a debilitating motor neuron disease that progressively destroys the neurons required for voluntary movement, speech, and eventually breathing and swallowing, killing patients in just three to five years.  Through the Ice Bucket Challenge the ALS Foundation has raised over $100 million in funding while simultaneously providing a platform for over three million people to voice their support for scientific research.  But the wildly successful social media campaign was not without its critics.  Some were hesitant about the idea of wasting clean water, a luxury that isn’t afforded to many parts of the world and one that is growing more and more precious as the drought in the West worsens.  Others, particularly religious leaders, were unhappy with researchers’ use of embryonic stem cells, citing a conflict with their belief that life begins at conception.  But one of the most common criticisms, and the most dangerous, is that organizations that fund animal research should not be supported.

Aamodt Article Fig

Pete Frates, for whom the ice bucket challenge was created.

Initially it may seem harmless.  One might see a post about it in their Facebook feed and think, “Oh, so-and-so really has a soft spot for animals,” and then continue on without giving much thought to the implications of what they just read.  The issue can become murky, since the vast majority of people support the idea that animal abuse is wrong.  However, animal research is not abuse, and it is dangerous to voice opposition without considering the implications of what that really means.

What would one have to do to really extract him- or herself from taking advantage of the benefits of animal research?  To start this would involve declining any and all vaccinations, accepting vulnerability to dying from disease.  This actually extends to any intravenous injection, so all life saving therapies involving this simple procedure would be eliminated.  Death from blood loss due to a traumatic injury could not be prevented by a blood transfusion.  All surgeries would be off the table.  The basic antibiotics we take for granted would no longer be an option. No insulin treatment for diabetics.  No dialysis for those suffering from kidney failure.  Any hope for those suffering from breast cancer or depression would be lost.  Even the most recent medical advances, such as transplanting organs engineered from a patient’s own stem cells, would all be unavailable.  With these and countless other treatments directly resulting from animal research you would think that these activists would be sending us thank you cards instead of blind criticisms!

Could this hypocrisy be mitigated by any validity to their claims?  Absolutely- except for the fact that these concerns have already been addressed and protections already put in place.  Researchers and lay people alike want to ensure that no animal needlessly suffers.  Multiple oversight committees govern research activities conducted at universities. All federally funded research centers have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) made up of experts in the field as well as lay people to ensure that experimental design is deemed humane by both scientists and people unfamiliar with research practices alike.  Considerations include alleviating pain and side effects, minimizing the number of animals used, ensuring that animals are used appropriately and only when necessary, overseeing their healthcare and living facilities, and even requiring that a plan be in place to save the animals in the event of a natural disaster.  Research animals should be respected, and in keeping with that ethical consideration IACUC and many other oversight organizations ensure that they receive the best possible care.

The general perception of animal rights activists is that they are well-intentioned, if uninformed, individuals who are exercising their First Amendment right to protest whatever they want.  Unfortunately the reality is that their members include dangerous extremists willing to harass and carry out attacks on researchers.  At UCLA researchers are all too familiar with anti-research terrorism.  In 2006, 2007, and 2008 firebombs were planted at the homes of UCLA scientists.  In 2007 Dr. Edythe London’s home was flooded, along with a threatening note.  Dr. David Jentsch’s car was set on fire while he was in his home in 2009.  The terrorists also left a note filled with razorblades detailing a fantasy about sneaking up on him and slitting his throat.  On-going harassment includes yelling slurs at scientists outside their home.  In 2011 they referred to the daughter of holocaust survivors as “Hitler with a cunt,” and directed the homophobic slur “You cocksucking bastard” among others toward another researcher.  These extremists even directed their terrorism toward the children of Dr. Dario Ringach.  In 2010 they put on masks and banged on his children’s windows to terrify them and sent letters threatening to target them at school.

In the words of Dr. David Jentsch, “The anger generated by their failure to make a persuasive argument to the public, amplified by their sense of self-righteousness, is sufficient to convince them they are entitled to use violence to achieve their goals.”  We can no longer afford to be silent.  Animal research saves lives.  Anybody who reaps the benefits of animal research while claiming to oppose it should be made aware of this hypocrisy.  It is also essential that we banish the myth that modern-day biomedical research animals are tortured.  There are many layers of protections in place to ensure that they receive the best possible care.  There is no excuse for terrorism.  Nobody should fear for their lives or that of their children, especially researchers who dedicate their lives to scientific progress.  Now is the time to disseminate the truth about animal research and stand up for the welfare of all biomedical researchers.  The next time you hear someone claim to oppose the ice bucket challenge on the grounds of animal research be sure to speak up and educate them.  Society needs to hear the voices of the scientifically literate.  Don’t let them be drown out by ignorance.

Caitlin Aamodt
UCLA neuroscience graduate student

References

[1]  http://www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4137497/
[3] http://www.alsa.org/news/media/press-releases/ice-bucket-challenge-082914.html
[4] http://www.refinery29.com/2014/08/73360/grimes-als-ice-bucket-challenge-peta
[5] http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/timeline/
[6] http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/tutorial/iacuc.htm
[7] http://unlikelyactivist.com/2014/02/03/join-pro-test-for-science-to-end-the-age-of-terror/
[8] http://unlikelyactivist.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/arson.jpg
[9] http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2010/02/23/time-to-get-mad-time-to-speak/
[10] http://fbresearch.org/als-ice-bucket-challenge-for-a-cure/

Urge the U. S. Surgeon General to Voice Support for Animal Research

Your scientific activism is only a click away.

A new petition in Change.org urges the U. S. Surgeon General, Rear Admiral Boris D. Lushniak, to voice support for the humane, and regulated use of animals in medical research.  It reads:

There is a growing pressure from animal rights organizations that would deny Americans the health benefits derived from the use of animals in medical research.

Opponents of animal research represent a small minority of the population, but they engage in misleading, visible and vocal campaigns that can impact the ability of scientists to conduct medical research with animals.

The scientific consensus is clear — recent polls by Nature Magazine and the Pew Research Center show that 92% of scientists believe that animal research remains essential to the advancement of biomedical sciences.

We call on the U. S. Surgeon General to publicly recognize the past contributions of the humane use of animals in research that has improved the well-being of human and non-human animals, and to stress the essential role they continue to play in advancing medical science and knowledge.

By acting on this petition the U. S. Surgeon General would be publicly reaffirming the scientific consensus and join the many medical and scientific organizations that have already adopted resolutions in support of the responsible and regulated use of animals in research.  These include the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Neurology, the American Heart Association, the American Veterinary Medical  Association, the Society for Neuroscience and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, among others.

Please consider signing the petition and share it with your colleagues and friends!

Thank you!

The marchers begin to walk towards the center of the UCLA

Ask the U. S. Surgeon General to Voice Support for Animal Research!

Crash course in medical history

Opponents of animal research often portray two of the pioneers of experimental physiology, François Magendie (1783-1855) and his student Claude Bernard (1813-1878), as deranged, vicious, and sadistic individuals who derived pleasure in harming animals. Moral philosophers Peter Singer and Lori Gruen convey this sort of message in their book “Animal Liberation: A graphic guide”.

Portrayal of Claude Bernard in Singer and Gruen's book

Portrayal of Claude Bernard in Singer and Gruen’s book

A quick look at how Claude Bernard’s face is portrayed in their book is sufficient to get a sense of Singer and Gruen’s feelings towards scientists who engage in animal research. The peculiar use of quotes around ‘experiment’ in the caption suggests they believe the work did not qualify as legitimate scientific research, nor that it could contribute any benefits to mankind. Such view fails to consider the historical context of their experiments.  In particular, one could ask how were human patients treated by their physicians of the time.

Here is a brief summary of 19th century medicine —

The theory of counter-irritation was in vogue. To counter-irritate basically meant causing additional wounds to the patient as a form of treatment. One technique involved inserting inflamed limbs were into giant anthills. More convenient was produce large blisters by means of a fire iron or acid. In 1824, an article in the Lancet by Dr. Abernathy suggested that a 1 foot square blister was probably a bit too large — several small blisters were indicated instead.  A third method of counter-irritation involved making a saw-shaped wound and inserting dried peas or beans into it. The doctor would then ensure the wound remained open, keeping it from healing, from weeks to months, replacing the peas and/or beans as necessary.

Leeches were used in vast quantities and for many purposes.  Physicians would lower leeches down patient’s throats.  Hundreds of them would be used to bleed a man’s testicle over days. Leeches were also applied to the vagina to relieve “sexual excitement” and, not to discard other orifices, doctors would push them up the anus. It was noted that during these procedures there was always a possibility that some of the leeches would get lost inside the patient body which, according to the physicians of the time, resulted in  “very annoying accidents”.

What about mental disease? A common treatment involved psychiatrists spinning patients in centrifuge-like machines a hundred of times per minute. This is how unruly patients came to understand the authority of the doctor, with one of them asserting that the more lively his intimidation towards the apparatus the more charitable the effects of the therapy.”  

rush

Benjamin Rush’s tranquilizer chair

Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers and signatories of the Declaration of Independence, adopted some of these same methods and developed them further.  He would pour acid on his patients backs and cut them with knives to allow the discharge “form the neighborhood of the brain”.  Rush also developed the famous “tranquilizer chair” where patients were restrained for up to entire days — the chair had a convenient hole for defecation at the bottom.

Bloodletting was used to treat a number of ailments.  It also often led to death.  One famous incident involves George Washington, who in 1799 suffered from a bad sore throat and died shortly after a visit by three different doctors who, altogether, took about half of his blood volume. The famous medical journal The Lancet derives its name from the tool used in these procedures.

Given Singer and Gruen’s depiction of animal research one must also ask — How did human surgeries look back then?  By all accounts they were the most excruciating, traumatic and dangerous experience for patients.  As an example, the novelist Fanny Burney recounted part of her experience with a mastectomy as follows:

I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead & M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast cutting through veins arteries flesh nerves I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered Again all description would be baffled yet again all was not over, Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & — Oh heaven! I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone scraping it!

Ms Burney was lucky to have survived to describe her experiences.  Most surgeries taking place in surgical theaters simply ended up in death.

The above were some of the common practices of medicine a mere 200 years ago. Magendie was one among the main critics of the dominant medical theories (humorism and vitalism) and the use of unproven methods on human patients. On the use of animals in research he said at a meeting [] I beg my honorable colleague to observe that I experiment on animals precisely because I do not wish to experiment on men.  That is what he felt about medicine — it was nothing short of human experimentation.

In the introductory pages of his Journal de Physiologie Expérimentale Magandie, he added:

“What subject is indeed more fertile in gross errors and absurd beliefs than that of health and disease? Consider the painful disquietude you would produce in the minds of the majority of men if you said to them:There are no such things as rheumatismal humour, gouty humour, scabby virus, venereal virus, and so forth.  Those things which are so designated are imaginary things, which the human mind has created to hide from itself its own ignorance.’   The chances are that you would be taken for a lunatic just as it but recently befell those who maintained that the sun was immovable and the earth turned.”

Any honest reading of medical history has to give credit to the experimental physiologists who put medicine in the right track to become what it is today. The handful of physicians and psychiatrists that speak against animal research should remember that from Hippocrates to the early 19th century, their profession caused more harm than good to their patients.  They ought to be reminded that it was the work of the experimental physiologists that turn this around.  Charles Darwin acknowledged this fact when he wrote:

[] I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind.

As experimental medicine advanced, so did our ability to treat the potential pain and suffering animals may experience in research.  Animal welfare laws were established. Today, the vast majority of animals participating in research benefit from the use of modern anesthetics and analgesics. The public and our representatives recognize that responsible, regulated animal research has continued to produce new therapies and cures through the years — benefiting humans and non-human animals alike. Stopping the work and depriving future generations of new advances would be immoral.

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

harlow plaque jpeg (2)

The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over 30 years ago. Harlow’s iconic studies of mother and infant monkeys have endured for decades as the centerpiece of philosophical debate and animal rights campaigns.  With news of his death, philosophers worried that they would now need to turn their attention to new questions, learn about current research, and address persistent, urgent needs in public consideration of scientific research and medical progress. Scientists and advocates for a more serious contemporary public dialogue were relieved and immediately offered their assistance to help others get up to speed on current research.

To close the chapter, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin provided the following 40 year retrospective on Harlow’s work and its long-term impact (see below).

Internet reaction to the scientists’ offering was swift, fierce, and predictable.

“We will never allow Harlow to die,” said one leading philosopher, “The fact is that Harlow did studies that are controversial and we intend to continue making that fact known until science grinds to a halt and scientists admit that we should be in charge of all the laboratories and decisions about experiments. It is clear to us that we need far more talk and far less action. Research is complicated and unpredictable–all that messiness just needs to get cleaned up before research should be undertaken.”

Animal rights activists agreed, saying:

“For many decades Harlow and his monkeys have been our go-to graphics for protest signs, internet sites, and articles. It would simply be outrageously expensive and really hard to replace those now. Furthermore, Harlow’s name recognition and iconic monkey pictures are invaluable, irreplaceable, and stand by themselves. It would be a crime to confuse the picture with propaganda and gobbledygook from extremist eggheads who delusionally believe that science and animal research has changed anything.”

Others decried what they viewed as inappropriate humorous responses to the belated shock at Harlow’s passing.

“It is clear to us that scientists are truly diabolical bastards who think torturing animals is funny. Scientists shouldn’t be allowed to joke. What’s next? Telling people who suffer from disease that they should just exercise and quit eating cheeseburgers?” said a representative from a group fighting for legislation to outlaw food choice and ban healthcare for non-vegans and those with genetic predispositions for various diseases.

A journalist reporting on the controversial discovery of Harlow’s death was overheard grumbling, “But what will new generations of reporters write about? Anyway, the new research is pretty much the same as the old research, minus all the complicated biology, chemistry, and genetic stuff, so it may as well be Harlow himself doing it.”

A fringe group of philosophers derisively called the “Ivory Tower Outcasts” for their work aimed at cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues made a terse statement via a pseudonymous social media site.

“We told you so. Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought+action (ps- trolley software needs upgrade, man at switch quit)”

Harlow himself remained silent. For the most part, his papers, groundbreaking discoveries, and long-lasting impact on understanding people and animals remained undisturbed by the new controversy.

Statement from Psychologists:

Harlow’s career spanned 40+ years and produced breakthroughs in understanding learning, memory, cognition and behavior in monkeys1 (see Figure 1). In a time period where other animals were generally thought of as dumb machines, Harlow’s work demonstrated the opposite — that monkeys, like humans, have complex cognitive abilities and emotional attachments. Harlow and his colleagues developed now classic ways to measure cognition2,3. For example, the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA; see Figure 1), in which monkeys uncover food beneath different types of colored toys and objects, allowed scientists to understand how monkeys learn new things, remember, and discriminate between different colors, shapes, quantities, and patterns.

The discoveries of Harlow and his colleagues in the 1930s and forward provided the foundation not only for changes in how people view other animals, but also for understanding how the brain works, how it develops, and –ultimately–how to better care for people and other animals.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In the last decade of his long career, Harlow, his wife Margaret– a developmental psychologist, and their colleagues, again rocked the scientific world with a discovery that fundamentally changed our biological understanding.3 Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.

For a brief time at the very end of his career, Harlow performed a small number of studies that have served as the touchstone for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others interested in whether and how animal research should be done. The most controversial of the studies are known by their colloquial name “pit of despair” and were aimed at creating an animal model of depression. In this work, fewer than 20 monkeys were placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of 6 weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.

At the time, the late 1960s, the presence of brain chemicals had recently been identified as potentially critical players in behavior and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. New understanding and treatment of the diseases was desperately needed to address the suffering of millions of people. Available treatments were crude. They included permanent institutionalization– often in abject conditions, lobotomy (removing part of the brain), malaria, insulin, or electric shock therapies. As some scientists worked to uncover the role of brain chemicals in behavior and mood, others worked to produce drugs that could alter those chemical networks to relieve their negative effects. In both cases, animal models based on similar brain chemistry and biology were needed in order to test whether new treatments were safe and effective. It was within this context that Harlow and his colleagues in psychiatry studied, in small numbers, monkeys who exhibited depressive-like behaviors.

By the 1970s and over the next decades, scientists produced medications that effectively treat diseases like schizophrenia and depression for many people. The therapies are not perfect and do not work for everyone, which is why research continues to identify additional and new treatments. Regardless, there is no question that the suffering of millions of people has been reduced, and continues to be alleviated, as a result of new medications and new understanding of the biological basis of disease.

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery.  Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Looking back while moving forward

Nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to imagine the time before MRI and neuroimaging and before the many effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other diseases. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine a time in which people believed that genes and biology were destiny, that other animals were automatons, or that mothers were only important because they provided food to their children. Casting an eye back to the treatment of monkeys, children, and vulnerable human populations in medical and scientific research 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, is difficult as well. Standards for ethical consideration, protections for human and animal participants in research, and the perspectives of scientists, philosophers, and the public have all continued to change as knowledge grows. Yet, what has not changed is an enduring tension between the public’s desire for progress in understanding the world and in reducing disease and the very fact that the science required to make that progress involves difficult choices.

There are no guarantees that a specific scientific research project will succeed in producing the discoveries it seeks. Nor is there a way to know in advance how far-ranging the effect of those discoveries may be, or how they may serve as the necessary foundation for work far distant. In the case of Harlow’s work, the discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding of how the brain, genes, and experiences affect people’s health and well-being.

Mother and infant swing final

Mother and juvenile rhesus macaque at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 30 years since Harlow’s death, new technologies and new discoveries—including brain imaging (MRI, PET), knowledge about epigenetics (how genes are turned on and off), and pharmacotherapies—have been made, refined, and put into use in contemporary science. As a result, scientists today can answer questions that Harlow could not. They continue to do so not because the world has remained unchanged, or because they lack ethics and compassion, but because they see the urgent need posed by suffering and the possibility of addressing global health problems via scientific research.

Harlow’s legacy is a complicated one, but one worth considering beyond a simple single image because it is a legacy of knowledge that illustrates exactly how science continues to move forward from understanding built in the past. An accurate view of how science works, what it has achieved, what can and cannot be done, are all at the heart of a serious consideration of the consequences of choices about what scientific research should be done and how. Harlow and his studies may well be a touchstone to start and continue that dialogue. But it should then be one that also includes the full range of the work, its context and complexity, rather than just the easy cartoon evoked to draw the crowd and then loom with no new words.

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

The author is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The views and ideas expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

Suomi SJ & Leroy, HA (1982) In Memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905-1982). American Journal of Primatology 2:319-342. (Note: contains a complete bibliography of Harlow’s published work.)

2Harlow HF & Bromer J (1938). A test-apparatus for monkeys. Psychological Record 2:434-436.

3Harlow HF (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review 56:51-65

4Harlow HF (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.

Unpleasant Truths vs Comforting Lies

Scientists use animals  in research to elucidate basic questions about biological function in health and disease.  Such basic research in the life sciences, like parallel studies in other fields of science, yields knowledge about nature.  Such knowledge, in turn, can be applied to a myriad of problems to alleviate suffering, improve our well-being, and make this a better world.  Our students at UCSF provide this wonderful example of how our work leads to progress and make a solid case for why the public and our government should support basic research:

In contrast, those that oppose the use of animals in medical research find comfort in lies. They deride the work as being “curiosity-driven research” that merely results in “knowledge for knowledge sake”.  They believe basic research is without any value at best, and fraudulent at worst.  In doing so, such activists highlight their lack of knowledge about science in general and about who scientists are as individuals.

Sadly, such grotesque views on basic research is just one of the many comforting lies that form a part of the animal-rights belief system which can be readily summarized in the following form:

comforting lies

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.